OSCEOLA COUNTY — While many people dream of retirement, if someone finds themselves out of work too early it can turn the dream into a nightmare.

Experience Works, a national nonprofit organization, has helped older Americans train to re-enter the work force in a new field for the past 50 years.

“Primarily, we work with people who are 55 or older, are lower income and need to get back in the work force,” said Sandy Rogers, Experience Works employment training coordinator. “We place people with nonprofit or government agencies for training. We pay their wage so it’s basically free help, but the agency has to provide training and upgrade the person’s skills.”

Rogers is in charge of nine counties: Mecosta, Osceola, Lake, Newaygo, Clare, Isabella, Mason, Montcalm and Oceana. Funding for Experience Works is provided by a grant from the U.S. Department of Labor through the Older Americans Act. Residents who are 55 or older, live in one of those counties and meet the income guidelines can contact Rogers for training.

Interested residents can call the state toll-free number, 1-866-976-5939, and that office will send the information to Rogers, who will contact the applicant.

“We can fill out applications over the phone and we send clients anything they need,” she said. “Those applying have to provide proof of age, income and their address because they have to meet the guidelines.”

There is a cap on the number of positions authorized for each county, but once the positions are filled, Rogers maintains a waiting list. Because Experience Works participants are required to continue looking for work during their training period, they sometimes leave the program early when they find a permanent job. The next person on the waiting list then can be placed into a training program.

“I’m authorized for five positions in Mecosta County,” Rogers said. “I have four positions in Osceola County, but I currently only have two filled. One person left to retire and another got a job, so I’m looking for people to take part in the program in Osceola County.”

Neither Mecosta nor Osceola counties has a waiting list currently, and Rogers said only one person is on the waiting list in Lake County, where she is authorized for three positions.

“People come and go,” she said. “They get training and try to get a job. I always try to make sure we have people ready to replace them if somebody gets a job and leaves. We’ve had seven or eight people get jobs since June.”

Program participants can’t say enough good things about Experience Works.

“The program works tremendously,” said John Holley, who is receiving training at the Mecosta County Commission on Aging to become a maintenance man. “I’ve seen my co-workers move on. Just a week ago, a woman who worked at the front desk got a job.”

Program participants must submit a list of 10 to 14 places where they’ve looked for a job each month, Holley said. He feels he still has more to learn, especially with electrical and plumbing work, but he believes he’s receiving solid training. In addition to on-the-job training, participants take an online class each month to earn certification in various areas. Holley has earned three certificates so far.

“This has really helped,” he said. “It’s an excellent job and an excellent program.”

Diane Eichenberg participated in the program last year until she found a job at Womens Information Services, Inc., as a legal advocate. She recently was promoted to program director and now serves as a trainer for Experience Works participants. Prior to Experience Works, she had been in retail management.

“I’m not sure I would have looked at the social services field as something possible for me before Experience Works,” Eichenberg said. “It’s hard after you’ve done something for so long to think about what your transferable skills are. One of the great things they do is really help you redefine what those skills are and stop selling yourself short.”

Eichenberg received training as an administrative assistant at WISE through Experience Works and she now is helping train another woman in that position. She noted she’s the exception, however, because the agencies which provide training can’t hire every participant.

“One of the biggest cautions we offer is don’t fall in love with what you’re doing,” she said. “It’s job training, not a job.”

Overall, Eichenberg recommends the program to seniors who need a new direction in their career path.

“Absolutely it’s a great opportunity,” she said. “You can look at it as a chance to reinvent the next phase of your life.”